The woman without a country

Chile's government would like the world to believe its justice system is fair and democratic. Why then has it suppressed a book exposing widespread corruption in that system and forced its author into exile in Miami?

Published January 4, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

I'd been trying to figure out a new way of explaining my peculiar situation, searching for words that hadn't tired themselves out in seven months of retelling, when the mailman brought me a letter with some news recently: The Immigration and Naturalization Service informed me that I had been granted asylum in the United States "for an indefinite period."

This news was a kick in the stomach that left me reeling. It didn't make me happy at all; it only deepened the feeling that I was somewhere I didn't belong -- a person without a country.

You see, I'm the kind of journalist who likes to be a fly on the wall, watching as things develop in front of me, jotting down a note or two on any old scrap of paper so as not to forget the details. When I've got the story I share it with the citizens of my country -- or what was my country, I guess I should say.

I spent six years quietly collecting anecdotes that revealed the corruption of the Chilean judicial system, and I published it all last April in my second book, "The Black Book of Chilean Justice." This is not an academic study of the judicial system, but rather a detailed chronicle of the activities of the human beings who work in the institution.

The thesis of the book is that Chilean justice has never been blind, and the facts are there to prove it -- in the obsequiousness of the Supreme Court under Augusto Pinochet, most evident in its failure to demand habeas corpus for hundreds of detainees who are still missing; in its remarkable failure to come clean for its miserable performance under the dictatorship; in the fact that it has scarcely been reformed since Spanish rule, when its job was to make sure the king was obeyed.

The book documents many cases of corruption, abuse of power, nepotism and stupidity.

However, as it turns out, writing the book itself was a crime in the eyes of the Chilean courts -- "a crime against national security."

The book was released April 13, 1999 at a Santiago hotel room jammed with journalists. The next morning, agents of the civil police -- roughly equivalent to the FBI -- appeared at the headquarters of the publisher, Editorial Planeta, with a judge's order to confiscate all copies.

When the editor in chief, Carlos Orellana, called me at my apartment to tell me of this news, we agreed that we had to alert the press. So when the police agents, accompanied by Planeta's general manager, Bartolo Ortiz, arrived at the warehouse, reporters and cameramen were there to register the sight of his employees rolling cartloads of the books onto police wagons.

That photo went around the world and provoked angry commentary within Chile. It had been four months since a Spanish judge had requested Pinochet's extradition from England. Yet at the very time the Chilean government was trying to convince the rest of the world that it was capable of trying Pinochet for his crimes in Chile, it was suppressing freedom of speech at home.

The reaction to the banning order was fierce in Chile. Many said that such an inquisition was unacceptable after nine years of democracy. But those words were not enough to restrain the fury of Servando Jordan, a former Supreme Court chief justice who accused me of offending him. Nor did they create any hesitation in Rafael Huerta, the lower court judge who eagerly pursued the case.

Jordan was the perfect example of the slippery reality I described in the book. He was chosen in the 1980s by Pinochet, and considered a pro-regime judge. But in the 1990s, under a new political constellation, he had voted to convict Gen. Manuel Contreras, ex-head of the secret police, for the 1976 assassination of former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington.

Jordan is a judge who, as I reported, drinks during the workday. I once saw him being carried to his car by aides because he was too inebriated to stay vertical on his own. Another time I saw him walking down the streets with wet pants. He's a judge who sometimes interfered in criminal cases in inexplicable ways -- he drew an official complaint for freeing a Colombian man accused of the biggest cocaine operation in the country's history, and was subsequently impeached, though ultimately a tie vote in Congress allowed him to keep his job.

Because I'd had to flee my country, it was on a television in a hotel room in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that I watched my countrymen attack the suppression of my book. My brother, who is a lawyer, heard from a friend of his in the government that I was to be arrested and prosecuted under the Law of State Security, which carries penalties of up to five years in prison for defaming or libeling the principal authorities of the country -- the magistrates of the Supreme Court. My brother had urged me to leave the country immediately before a detention order could be issued that would put an end to all my personal plans and my professional career.

My boyfriend, an American computer programmer, had to learn the hard way what it meant to be involved with a Latin American journalist. Hurriedly, we packed our bags, raced to the airport and bought tickets, without even taking the time to say goodbye to friends or relatives.

I waited in Buenos Aires for 10 days, hoping that my absence from Chile would be temporary. After all, wasn't just about everyone protesting the confiscation order, from my colleagues in the press to cabinet ministers of the president? Didn't they all agree that this action was an absurd holdover from the dictatorship years?

Slowly, however, it dawned on me that the widespread condemnation of the actions of the judges wasn't necessarily going to be translated into any kind of real action. So I left for Miami, where prior to the release of my book I'd been working as a correspondent for the newspaper La Tercera.

I realized at that moment that it was going to be a long fight, and that despite the gestures of solidarity made before the TV cameras, my editors at Planeta and I were alone. Freedom of the press is a cheaply bartered good in Chile, not a treasured right. It's something to make the right noises about but it's not a priority of any government agency or political party.

My publishers, Orellana and Ortiz, were thrown in jail for three days until the court realized that under the law it couldn't hold them for the same high crimes of which I was accused. From the safety of the United States, I sued Chile before the Interamerican Human Rights Commission, an entity that's part of the Organization of American States and whose decisions are supposed to have the force of law in the signatory countries -- including Chile.

Journalistic organizations around the world, particularly in the United States, have sent protest letters to the Chilean government. The president of Chile, through his ministers, has declared my prosecution an injustice and the Law of State Security an artifact of the bad old days.

However, nothing has been done to allow me to return to Chile without threat of arrest and imprisonment for five years. The government's proposal to change the state security law would simultaneously establish a new legal mechanism to protect the senior authorities of government from criticism from the likes of me. My books continue to be held prisoner in a police warehouse for the simple reason that a former Supreme Court justice found them offensive.

As for me, I remain glued to my computer and my phone in a kind of virtual reality, receiving and distributing information about this and other cases that illustrate the limit on free expression inside Chile. I'm struggling to maintain the ephemeral interest of the news media in Chile and the equally fickle major U.S. media. The confiscation and banning of a book in a South American country doesn't seem to raise much of a pulse here -- but I have gotten support from Colombia and Mexico, countries where journalists regularly put their lives on the line.

Last fall, Britain's approval of Pinochet's extradition provoked a small renewal of interest in my case. But I've given so many interviews and told so many people about my situation that the words seem to be losing their sense.

Instead of interviewing people myself, I find I've become a protagonist, or even worse -- a flak -- for a cause that I believe is important for journalism, but which is greeted with a mixture of cool indifference or verbal support that's insufficient to change anything. Meanwhile my personal plans change from week to week, subject to the arbitrary rhythms of petitions and speeches and phone calls and bureaucratic red tape that come with a cause.

Once I had received the letter approving my asylum last November, I realized that as long as my book remains banned in Chile I'll have to keep struggling to bring the words of protest to life, so that my case doesn't simply disappear into oblivion like so many others in the weak democracies of Latin America. All my efforts, all the work and tedium and grumpiness, will have been in vain if "The Black Book of Chilean Justice" ends up trapped forever in a police warehouse.

Yet that's what Jordan and others hiding behind him in the shadows are betting on. After all, for them, silence is victory.

By Alejandra Matus

Alejandra Matus is a Chilean journalist living in Miami. Salon correspondent Arthur Allen translated this article from Spanish.

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